When a relationship breaks down, one of the hardest things to deal with and one of the most contentious issues can be what the arrangements will be in relation to the children. Unfortunately, parents will have to accept that they will not be able to spend the same amount of time with their children and this can be exceptionally hard for parents who are used to seeing their children every day.
The law in relation to children has been reformed and today the Children and Families bill was given Royal Assent. The act will result in changes to the law to give greater protection to vulnerable children and for children whose parents are separating. In addition, there will also be a new system introduced for disabled children and those with special needs and extra support for parents.
Here at Stowe Family Law, one of the biggest changes that we will see after the implementation of the act is the abolishment of residence and contact orders, which have been replaced by the all-encompassing Child Arrangement Orders. Under Section 8(1) of the Children Act 1989, as amended, a Child Arrangements Order means an order regulating arrangements relating to any of the following:
a) With whom a child is to live, spend time with or otherwise have contact.
b) When a child is to live, spend time with or otherwise have contact with any person.
It would appear that the logic behind the change is that the Courts believed parents to be making applications for Contact or Residence simply for the status, finding that they had not attached importance to the actual substantive matters. Furthermore, what is apparent from the change is that the focus is henceforth to be on the content of the order, rather than its name. The underlying aim in the change of terminology is to prevent the historic conception of there somehow being a winner and a loser in children cases.
However, that being said, the Child Arrangement Orders definition does not, in reality, look dissimilar to Residence and Contact. Ultimately, they still provide for where the child will live and with whom, when and how the child is to spend time.
Parental involvement presumption
What the Children and Families Act most notably does, is tries to address the common perception that the current law does not fully recognise that it is crucial for a child to have both of their parents involved in their life. This problem was addressed by way of Clause 11 of the Bill which most definitely falls within the ambit of the controversial discussion on whether there should be a statutory presumption in private law, that there should be shared parenting or parental involvement.
Clause 11 introduced a new section 1(2A) into the Children Act 1989 which requires the Courts to “presume, unless the contrary is shown” that involvement of each of the child’s parents in their life “will further the child’s welfare”, when considering applications for the discharge or variation of a section 8 order.
However, it should be highlighted that this new insertion into the Children Act does not in fact mean that all parents will fall within its scope. This is because Section 1(2A) also states that
“if that parent can be involved in the child’s life in a way that does not put the child at risk of suffering harm; and is to be [so treated] unless there is some evidence before the court in the particular proceedings to suggest that involvement of that parent in the child’s life would put the child at risk of suffering harm whatever the form of the involvement”
Therefore, if a parent’s involvement would be seen to put the child in harm’s way, the presumption will be rebutted. Even in cases where the presumption is applied, the Courts must still consider whether it should be rebutted if it is decided that the involvement of the parent would not further the child’s welfare.
Another area, in which the Children and Families Act will have an impact, is by the encouragement to resolve matters without litigating. Parties to a children dispute are now required to attend a mandatory MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting). MIAM’s are central to the Child Arrangement Programme which was introduced by the Act. The purpose of the MIAM is to provide information about mediation and discuss how the dispute may be resolved without the need for Court intervention. There are, however, categories of persons that will be exempt from the requirement to attend, including cases concerning:
-child protection concerns
-Non residence is England and Wales
-Lack of contact details for respondents
The exemption categories can be found in rule 3.8 of the Family Procedure Rules.
It remains to be seen how the requirement to attend MIAM’s will work in practice and indeed whether they will lead to a reduction in Court applications… Only time will tell.